Healthy through Presence or Absence, Nature or Science? A Framework for Understanding Front-of-Package Food Claims


Food products claim to be healthy in many ways, but prior research has investigated these claims at either the macro level (using broad descriptions such as “healthy” or “tasty”) or the micro level (using single claims such as “low fat”). The authors use a meso-level framework to examine whether these claims invoke natural or scientific arguments and whether they communicate about positive attributes present in the food or negative attributes absent from the food. They find that common front-of-packaging claims can be appropriately classified into (1) science- and absence-focused claims about “removing negatives,” (2) science- and presence-focused claims about “adding positives,” (3) nature- and absence-focused claims about “not adding negatives,” and (4) nature- and presence-focused claims about “not removing positives.” The authors conduct validation studies using breakfast cereals, a category for which nutrition quality varies but food claims are constant. They find that claim type is completely uncorrelated to actual nutrition quality yet influences inferences consumers make about taste, healthiness, and dieting. Claim type also helps predict the effects of hedonic eating, healthy eating, or weight loss goals on food choice.

Journal of Public Policy & Marketing